My old friend Chris, who works for Channel Five, has invited me to go with him to Las Vegas, where he is attending the Natpe TV marketing convention. We’re staying at the Mirage, a tropical-themed hotel with its own rainforest and volcano on the main Vegas Strip. The long back wall of the lobby is a coral reef aquarium with sharks, moray eels and clownfish. To get to your room you have first to pass through the casino, itself an aquarium-like space, dimly lit, with reefs of gleaming slot machines, card tables arrayed like sea fans, and some extremely strange creatures drifting about.
Upstairs Chris runs through our schedule: meetings, a trip to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. He’s the ideal travel companion, a combination of the Falstaffian and the Napoleonic, and since our first trip together, aged 14, I’ve learned to leave everything in his hands. ‘Ready to go?’ he asks, throwing on a jacket over his Hawaiian shirt. I follow him out into the sunshine.
The convention is being held in the nearby Venetian. Escalators carry us from the street to a bridge over the seven-lane Las Vegas Strip. From the upper level we can see most of the newer hotels, each a huge Y-shaped block with extravagantly themed ornamentation: Italianate scrolls for the Bellagio, jutting gold columns on Caesar’s Palace, garret roofs for the Paris. All have carnival props and follies out front: water garden, Coliseum, Eiffel Tower. My image of Vegas, based on old Mafia movies and Times Square, is out of date. This part at least seems more haughtily grandiose than seedy, and for all its old-world pastiching, more futuristic than nostalgic. The sidewalks are clean, the affluent-looking crowds flowing over them all plugged into cellphones or iPods, the buildings eerily gleaming. Everywhere there are monumental constructions of a sort I have never seen before: tall towers of steel columns bearing multiple storeys of gigantic video walls advertising shows, and capped by vast neoclassical pediments. They and the buildings themselves are rigged with speakers that murmur intimately to you as you pass, elaborating on their attractions. You half expect them to greet you by name.
At the Venetian we follow the bright blue canal under the Doge’s Palace façade and enter the gilt and marble lobby. This leads into another casino (you can’t go anywhere here without being funnelled through a casino). We’ve agreed not to gamble till later, but as we pass a set of slots – the Flaming Sevens – pulsating in luminous gold and scarlet, Chris’s stride slows. ‘Just a moment,’ he says, ‘I’m getting a sort of tingling feeling . . .’ He puts a $100 bill into the machine and starts hitting the play button. In a matter of seconds he wins $260. A moment later he wins another $80. We go on into the convention hall in a state of slightly unreal elation.
Along with Cannes, this is TV’s biggest sales event, and the place is teeming. Men mostly, with silk suits, cigars, shaved heads and elaborate underlip topiary. Chris has the blue ID card of a buyer, which acts as a powerful magnet. Before we’ve even cleared security, two producers have accosted him, one trying to sell him a programme on the ‘Glutton Bowl’, an eating Olympics, the other touting a series on real-life psychic detectives. Chris listens politely and exchanges cards. ‘Too niche for us,’ he says to me quietly as we move on. He explains his mission: having grown to its natural capacity, Channel Five is now focusing on the ‘quality’ of its audience from the point of view of advertisers. This means reaching for younger, richer viewers, which in turn means more of what he calls ‘factual entertainment’ shows.
Our first meeting is with the creator of Naked News, in which newscasters slowly strip as they read the news. The format has turned out to be a big success, with imitations appearing all over the world. ‘Everybody wants to see naked women reading the news,’ the producer tells us with uncomplicated candour. ‘Unlike the competition, our girls read well and they just strip – no wriggling or touching themselves. It’s tasteful.’ Even so the show itself is a little too raunchy for Channel Five, and instead Chris wants to make an ‘observational documentary’ about the making of it. For this he needs the producer’s co-operation, which the man is all too happy to give. While they discuss terms I look at stills from the company’s other shows: a squirrel on water-skis, a woman swallowing an octopus . . . I live with my family up a mountain, far from other people, and we don’t have a TV. All this is somewhat strange to me.